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So What Do You Do, Rick Bayless, Celebrity Chef and Cookbook Author?

Chef Bayless talks Top Chef Masters, Twitter, and food blogger etiquette

- June 23, 2010
Chicago chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless wears many toques. Best known for raising the profile of Mexican cuisine in America over the past quarter century, he's also a major media figure outside the kitchen. He holds the title of Top Chef Masters winner, hosts his own PBS show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, and his seventh cookbook, Fiesta at Rick's, hits shelves July 5. And in his spare time (read: the duration of an elevator ride from his office to the rear entrance of the Frontera Grill kitchen), he's taken to Twitter like mole to a flame.


Name: Rick Bayless
Position: Chef/owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and XOCO in Chicago. Host of PBS's Mexico: One Plate at a Time
Resume: Founded Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in 1987. Began the Frontera Farmer Foundation in 2003 to attract support for small Midwestern farms. Owner, Frontera Foods prepared food items. Winner of Bravo's Top Chef Masters, season one. Author of seven cookbooks.
Birthday: November 23, 1953
Hometown: Oklahoma City
Education: University of Michigan
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: "I always read the book section first."
Favorite TV show: Modern Family
Guilty pleasure: Doughnuts
Last book read: Momofuku by David Chang
Twitter handle: @Rick_Bayless

How can a cookbook author convey some personality while also explaining how to prepare a dish?
I try to keep my recipes as clean and clear as possible and then I always find one or two places, maybe three, in the recipe where I can interject something that's in my own voice that's personal. I can't stand to read recipes that look like they were generated by a computer. I actually want to know that my cookbook author, the person that I'm reading, has actually made that dish.

What most people want in a cookbook is a voice. They want somebody to help them through it and they want to know that you know what it's like for them to be in their own kitchen. When it gets to those once in a lifetime kinds of dishes, those just take a lot of words. If it's complex dish that somebody's going to build up to, they're going to buy the ingredients, get all the preparations done -- usually the really complicated dishes are made over several days -- you don't want to oversimplify it because then they get in the middle of it and they go, "Oh my god, what did I get into?" You really want to break it down for them and hold their hand through it, but also don't tell them, being really wordy, "Now it's going to start to turn a little gold and then after that it will brown a little bit more." Be concise and reassuring to people without being too wordy.

"You should never underestimate the power of a local groundswell."

What's your advice for authors who are trying to promote their latest book?
The more successful you are in one area, if it's food related, the more people will be willing to talk to you about your book. But when I was just starting out, I did all the same things that everybody else did. I found a way to promote in places where people were thinking about food. [At] the farmer's market that I'm the board of here in Chicago, we have a really strong educational initiative, and we have a couple of chefs that come and do demos, and if they've got cookbooks they promote them. Those kinds of things can be really positive ways to promote. Of course the best thing you can get is any sort of national placement. But at the same time, if it's just on the national forum, you have to balance that with letting the local people you like them, too. I would say that you set your sights as high as you can set them. and then you realize that the more of a solid local base that you have, the more solid your foundation is and those people won't ever turn away from you. Will they boost your cookbook sales up really high? No. But they'll be the people who keep coming back, and you'll be a part of their community so that they'll refer more to friends and stuff like that. I think you should never underestimate the power of a local groundswell.

What's the biggest difference for you between filming a reality show like Top Chef Masters and then your PBS show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time? What's it like on set?
On set it's really different, it's totally freewheeling and there's nothing that is very staged at all in Top Chef Masters. I didn't know going in whether I was going to find the whole thing to be less than real reality, you know? But it actually was. What you see is what you got, basically, and we didn't have lots of extra time. There were times when we were all back there washing pots and pans, and it was hard. They didn't give you any support at all. You never knew was what going to happen.

My show is not scripted, but it's got everything is very carefully laid out, I know I've got three and a half minutes for this scene, and I know I've got to convey all this information, and I'm going to get from point A to point B so I can go into the next scene. So that's much more about me being a teacher. What you were seeing in Top Chef Masters was me being a chef who was just reacting to whatever was thrown my way. And of course in our shows, I know what's going to be thrown my way because I helped write it.

In a recent New York Times article, the writer said you're "one the rare celebrity chefs who can own multiple restaurants, appear on TV, sell frozen pizzas and not seem like a jerky sellout." What's your advice for other very visible media personalities in staying real on camera and not appearing like a jerky sellout?
I think the jerky sellout thing really doesn't come from being on camera because it's not something that would translate into being on camera. The jerky sellout stuff is when people think they can do more than they can do, and so they just tackle it all. They open restaurants that they don't have staff to open that are trained enough, they write books about topics they really don't know anything about, and they hire someone to ghostwrite it for them and it becomes just a concept book that's just got some recipes to put on a shelf. Or when they endorse every product that comes along, and there's no rhyme or reason to what they're doing.

Television's a very different thing. The one thing that most people will tell you is when you're thinking about doing television is, "Can you break through the lens?" You can really tell the people who can do it and the people that can't. That's one thing that I always recommend to people like do a kind of screen test, you can usually find someone who will set up a camera and shoot you. Play around with it and see, do you think that you have what it takes to do that? Mostly what people want to see in people who are doing food on camera is that you can break through that lens and become the person's friend.

"I've got this community of people that are loving seeing what other people are making, and they're getting it through my Twitter feed."

Let's talk about Twitter. You're sharing your advice and news with nearly 57,000 fans, you give people feedback for their Twitpics...
That's my favorite thing, it just happened sort of spontaneously that somebody took a picture of what they had made from one of my books and they posted it to me because they all know that I take pictures of everything I cook and I post it to them. So somebody did the same thing back to me and I thought wow, I was showing my wife, "Look, look it's beautiful," and she said you should repost that. So I reposted that and then other people started doing the same thing. I'm really happy because now I've got this community of people that are loving seeing what other people are making, and they're getting it through my Twitter feed.

You recently got to cook at the White House, and then you took a little heat from the Chicago Sun-Times for allegedly tweeting where you weren't supposed to. Why did you use Twitter to set the record straight?
Because that's my form. I'm a Twitter baby, I have no other mouthpiece besides Twitter right now. That's kind of hilarious, but it's true. I thought it was incredibly poor journalism. And I was shocked beyond belief that somebody would think that I would do something like that. Yes, I post a lot on Twitter and yes I posted what my feelings were about going into the White House, but I would never do it in there. Even when people around us were taking pictures, I told my crew no pictures because I felt like that we needed to be invited to do that -- because there's a lot of things I don't know about the running of the White House. I don't presume to know that kind of thing, and I was going to be very respectful. I thought that was really, really unconscionable that Lynn Sweet posted that I was breaking all kinds of rules by tweeting from the White House. I was never going to do that. Anyway, I got a public apology.

What do you think about food bloggers taking pictures in restaurants?
I think it's absolutely fine. I take pictures of everything I eat. The only thing I have to say is flashes are not good. If you're flashing, flashing, flashing, I'm sorry, it can be very disruptive to the room. Now that everybody's got cameras with them all the time because most of them are built into the phones, it's gotten pretty crazy that no matter where you are or who announces what, everybody will take pictures. I was just doing a public demonstration with somebody else, [and] there was an announcement made that there was not to be any photos. So we both walked out on the stage, and it was just a roar of flashes going off. When it gets to be like that, then I think the food bloggers just have to chill out. I guess maybe we need to publish a little booklet on food bloggers etiquette.


Blake Gernstetter is mediabistro.com's associate editor.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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